SIBIU, Romania—European leaders met last Thursday in this picturesque town that, as it happens, was once the capital of Transylvania. They were looking for ways to fight increasingly authoritarian leaders and parties in the European Union that are sucking the life blood out of democracy.
In contrast, U.S. President Donald J. Trump embraced one of those leaders at the White House on Monday, praising Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, even as he has been censured by fellow European politicians.
“You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe,” Trump said during a photo op with Orbán at the White House. “You have been great with respect to Christian communities. You have really put a block up, and we appreciate that very much.”
To Europeans, that sounds like praise for Orbán’s xenophobic, anti-Muslim-immigrant policies—the very ones for which they’ve censured him.
Romanians, and other Europeans who came to this city for an “informal summit” of E.U. leaders told me they keep hoping the media reports on Trump are exaggerated, that his anti-E.U. tweets and threats of sanctions, and his continued embrace of authoritarian leaders is just part of his negotiating style.
They continue to hope that the Trump administration will be there for them to fend off Russian aggression and protect the E.U.’s way of doing business: respecting the rule of law; human rights; religious and press freedom.
Trump’s praise of Orbán flies in the face of all of that.
Orbán has railed against immigrants, gutted his country’s laws by creating an alternate judicial system, and strangled press freedom, to the extent that one of the most powerful political groupings in the European Parliament suspended his party, Fidesz, from its ranks.
His administration provoked the E.U. by publishing billboards attacking European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for urging E.U. members to take in refugees. The cartoon portrayed him as a puppet controlled by philanthropist George Soros, which also played on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Billionaire Soros, originally from Hungary, is Jewish.
The E.U. gathering in Sibiu was meant in part to send a message to Orbán and his ilk that the E.U. would find ways to bring them back in line, or would sanction them for moves to gut their own laws to give leaders more control over their people.
French President Emmanuel Macron, a fierce E.U. proponent, told the leaders that Europeans in the coming parliamentary election would be choosing “to build Europe further or... to destroy, deconstruct Europe and return to nationalism.”
“Climate, protection of borders and a model of growth, a social model... is what I really want for the coming years,” he said at the one-day summit.
France and eight other E.U. countries proposed getting to “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” by 2050, Reuters reported. German Chancellor Angela Merkel demurred because of her country’s heavy industrialism, but France and Germany are in agreement when it comes to E.U. members who are dismantling democracy from within.
The E.U. took the first step to recommend sanctions against Poland in 2017, then Hungary in 2018 for trying to tighten control on their populations, and Romania could be next, said Iulian Kifu, president of the Bucharest-based Center for Conflict Prevention and Early Warning, which held a side forum at the Sibiu summit.
Orbán has been pushing the limits of what the E.U. will tolerate, but has so far toed the line when the E.U. takes him to court and the court rules against his anti-democratic moves, Kifu said. The Hungarian has even dropped his pledge to bring “illiberal democracy” to Hungary after a stern talking to by German Chancellor Merkel.
The problem is that it takes a unanimous EU vote to pass some of the strictest measures, lamented Leonard Orbán, European affairs adviser to the Romanian president and no relation to the Hungarian leader.
“Some leaders find a way to stay in power,” he said, referring obliquely to authoritarian excesses by Hungary and his own prime minister. “Unfortunately the Union has no real instruments to deal with these kinds of cases,” he said speaking at the Europe’s Future conference sponsored by the Romanian president, in cooperation with Kifu’s think tank.
Still, Trump’s invitation to Orbán is seen as rewarding him for bad behavior and elevating his stature a scant two weeks ahead of European parliamentary elections that are seen as a test in the contest between traditional democratic values and populist demagoguery.
The White House visit was payback for Orbán’s support of Trump during the 2016 campaign—a reward apparently delayed by Orbán’s attacks on Soros and allegations of anti-Semitism. Trump’s decision to welcome Romania’s pro-E.U. President Klaus Iohannis back in 2017 was taken as a slap in Orbán’s face. (The Romanian president is not to be confused with the Romanian prime minister whose administration faces E.U. censure.)
Other Romanian politicos claim Trump’s invitation is really a shrewd move to draw Orbán away from Moscow’s orbit, but that’s a tall order given Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s careful cultivation of autocrats.
“If you leave Mr. Orbán in Russia’s hands, that’s bad. You have to meet him,” said Cristian Adomnitei, a member of the center-right National Liberal Party. “Tell him again, c’mon, did you forget who your friends are?”
Adomnitei says he hoped Trump would spend his private moments with Orbán talking about the importance of the rule of law and press freedom. That’s a high hope for an American man who regularly uses his bully pulpit to rail at the media via tweets, speeches and interviews and is now locked in battle with Congress, precisely, over the rule of law.
But politician-turned-entrepreneur Adomnitei still remembers the Republican Party that helped his country rebuild civil society after communism. He considers himself a sort of “Romanian Republican,” with MAGA-level loyalty to the Trump administration. He laments the fact that the International Republican Institute closed its offices in Bucharest, and says that events like Kifu’s in Sibiu are supported by what he considers more Democratic or left-leaning organizations.
“They need to come back,” he said of Trump’s party.
For others here, though, the Republican Party won’t rate for Europeans until it gets rid of Trump, and they insist his meeting with Orbán will produce little political advantage for the Hungarian.
“Trump does not give you prestige,” Kifu said. “He is unpredictable, and bullies everybody, so they dislike him. That’s Europe.” After Trump’s embrace of Orbán, he suggests, most of those leaders will like Trump even less.
The International Republican Institute said it’s continuing to work with pro-democratic parties in Eastern Europe, but from a distance. “Once both Bulgaria and Romania got into the union, it was a relatively easy for the U.S. government to say, mission accomplished….and democracy assistance kind of dried up for Eastern Europe,” said IRI’s senior director for transatlantic strategy Jan Surotchak Monday.
But he said IRI is still reaching out to Romanian via offices in Bratislava and Vienna, including working with the Romanian president specifically on “fighting corruption and increasing transparency and governance.”
But will any of this stop the autocratic trend? Right-wing populists, from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in Britain to Matteo Salvini’s Lega, Marine Le Pen in France and other nationalists, are organizing to try to take over the European Parliament with the express intent of disrupting and diminishing the E.U. Was there too much optimism here in Sibiu?
Perhaps it’s worth noting that in Transylvania, there is sometimes a tendency to relativize even the history of its most famous historical figure, Vlad Tepes, known as Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century prince at the heart of the Dracula legend.
Yes, Vlad skewered people and left them hanging from stakes, but everybody in these parts used to do that, said Sibiu Deputy Mayor Razvan Pop as we took an impromptu tour of the medieval walled city. But Vlad didn’t drink blood, said Pop. That was just a vicious rumor spread by people who didn’t like his taxes and tariffs.
The fact is, Vlad may not have drunk any blood, but for his victims that was a distinction without a difference.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with comment from the International Republican Institute.
Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here